3 Expert Tips for Dealing With Financial Stress
Simply put, financial wellness is important. It gives you security, enables you to buy the items you need, and sets you up to do the things you want. What you might not realize, though, is that it’s also crucial for your overall health. Now, we’re not talking about being able to afford organic avocados and a week at a spa (though that would be nice!). But rather, being financially well means feeling confident enough in your status that you’re not losing sleep over your future.
Unfortunately, money worries do keep many of us up at night: A study commissioned by Northwestern Mutual found that 44 percent of people considered finances to be their top source of stress. That type of chronic stress can lead to issues like headaches, digestive woes, and inflammation, says Brad Klontz, PsyD, cofounder of the Financial Psychology Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “And if you’re under significant financial strain, it’s associated with depression, anxiety, relationship conflicts, and a sense of loss of personal control.”
But here’s the silver lining: There are concrete steps you can take to gain control and worry less—starting with a few heart-to-heart conversations with the people you love. Your path to financial health starts here.
Talk Things Through
As a topic, money isn’t No. 1 on anyone’s Fun Conversations list. “People think it’s unseemly to talk about money,” explains Eric Dammann, PhD, a financial therapist and clinical psychologist in New York City. But talking about money with the key people in your life ensures you are all on the same page—and it can be enlightening on a personal level. It may help you get a handle on your own hopes and dreams, which you may not have articulated before. “It also helps you nip potential problems in the bud,” Dammann adds. “We all have money issues and quirks of one kind or another. If we don’t know what those quirks are, they will emerge in a time of real stress or panic.”
In relationships, immediate expenses (hello, leaky roof ) often take precedence over longer-term planning, so you and your partner may need to designate an evening to discuss nothing but finances. Call it a “money date.” Then dig in: What are your financial priorities? How do you envision your retirement? And what kind of money attitudes do you bring to the table? For instance, do you feel more secure with a larger emergency fund because your family was always scraping by? “As long as you talk about it, a saver and a spender can figure out how to manage things so they’re both happy,” Dammann says.
It’s also vital to have an honest conversation with your folks. Aging parents often don’t share information about their finances with their adult children. That can be a problem if you think your parents have all the resources they need when they actually don’t, or if you’re relying on an inheritance that isn’t coming. “The more you can all be open with each other, the more prepared everyone is going to be,” says Sara Gelsheimer, a financial planner in St. Louis.
Finally, if you have kids in high school who are thinking about college, start talking with them about what’s possible. If your child hopes to go to an elite private school, for example, but you can’t afford to send her there—or she’ll have to take out substantial student loans to attend—that’s a crucial conversation to have. Plus, helping your teen consider the tuitions at her top-pick schools is a good learning opportunity, says Brooke Napiwocki, a financial planner in Grafton, Wisconsin. “Evaluating financial choices is really important, and college is a huge financial choice.”
Assess Where You Are
Begin by listing your assets and liabilities (what you have and what you owe). Take a look at your investments: Is your money where you want it to be? What debts do you have, and what are the interest rates on each? This is also the time for a deep dive on cash flow—the money coming in and going out. What are your fixed expenses, what do you typically spend money on, and what’s left over?
Then, before you do anything else, set a weekly or monthly calendar meeting with your partner so you can stay on top of your day-to-day finances. It’s common for women to let a male partner take the lead on money matters. But even if you’re not the numbers whiz in the family, it’s in your best interest to stay involved.
Plan for the Future
With the facts on hand and the big picture in mind, you can put proactive strategies into place. The first item on your list should be creating an emergency fund. Start with the goal of collecting one month of your expenses in an interest-earning savings account. Have $100—or whatever you can manage—transferred from your checking account every two weeks. (Ideally, you want to save up three to six months of expenses—but that can be a longer-term goal.)
Next, address retirement. At a bare minimum, contribute enough to your 401(k) to take advantage of any match your employer offers. But you should also look at what you’ll ultimately need. Few people calculate this figure, so they don’t know how much to put away, Napiwocki says. “Maybe people have heard that they should save 10 percent of their earnings. But if you’re a higher-income family, you probably need to save closer to 15 percent, or maybe more.” (If you hit the 2019 401(k) max of $19,000, you can stash additional savings in an IRA or in another investment account.) That’s because for middle- and lower-income earners, Social Security replaces a larger portion of their income in retirement; higher earners may need to put away more to replicate their income in their later years. Online calculators can help you estimate your requirements. Try sites like vanguard.com/retirementincomecalculator or newretirement.com.
Paying down high-interest debts, which Napiwocki defines as those charging 6 percent or more, should be your third priority. Any credit card debt you have likely falls into that bucket. With an average interest rate of nearly 14 percent, plastic can really drag your finances down.
For parents worried about college tuition, taking a close look at what you can actually afford may go a long way toward alleviating angst. Experts suggest considering schools with tuitions you can break into three chunks: You should be able to cover a third of the cost with savings, a third with current income and any financial aid, and the rest with loans.
Automation can help with all your money goals. Set up automatic transfers to your IRA or investment account on paydays. Have your utility and credit card bills (or at least the minimums) auto-paid each cycle so you don’t incur late fees. Set a recurring debt payment once a month, or have money transferred to a 529 college savings account at regular intervals. The more you put on autopilot, the easier it will be to hit your targets.
If your financial picture feels complicated—say you need to start saving for live-in care for your mom and you want to buy a bigger home by 2023—a professional can help you untangle things. She will take all the pieces of the puzzle and project how much you’ll need and what it’ll take to get you there. (You can search for local planners at napfa.org or onefpa.org.)
There’s no question that preparing for the future, with all its unknowns and mounting costs, can seem overwhelming. But once you take action—and start moving in the right direction—you may be surprised at how emotionally reassuring the planning process can be. That is, after all, the essence of financial wellness: feeling on top of your money game so you can stress less about what’s ahead and live more fully in the present.
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